An evening with Thai food can pique the most bored palate.
We had my cousin Gaurav over and started moaning about how the whole city had no decent Thai eating place, five-star hotel restaurants were beyond our reach, blah blah, moan moan. Gaurav said, “Come over next Tuesday” and called home. While we said, “No, no! Stop!” he said into the phone, “Yes, Pat, make spring rolls, make fish, make vegetables,” and turning to us, “Do you want pad thai or rice? No argument. Just come.”
So on Tuesday we set forth, en famille. To distant Noida. We took a wrong turn, it was late, and we were famished. So as we drove slowly, looking out for landmarks, with Gaurav navigating by remote on the phone, I had my usual fantasy: of interesting, assorted, short eats, Oriental in nature. My daughter asked, “Is it possible that the food is ready and waiting and hot, and spicy? And will it be very rude if we walked in, they don’t ask us what we’re doing, how our jobs are, what our plans and ambitions and philosophies are and we just fall to?”
And so it came to pass. We walked in, were watered, and lo and behold, snacks started appearing. Platters of colourful assorted goodies glided in, steaming and spluttering.
Pat (Patcharee, but, thanks to lazy pronunciation, shortened to the convenient anglification) had outdone herself. But a little background is called for. Patcharee is from Trang in south Thailand, and either all Asian girls have her attitude, or she, who has it in shovelfuls, is an exception: the quality of warm hospitality, and the skill of a master chef. They say that Thai has no phrase for “Have you eaten?” They ask “Have you taken rice?”
But that day it wasn’t just rice. She had shopped, chopped, steamed, fried and sautéed enough varieties of food to pique the most bored palate, and then pressed it on us with sweet formality. The dinner menu was no nod to entertaining the cousins: it was a feast to weigh a table down, and a feast for all the senses.
We started with kai satay, chicken satay — hot, tender, melt-in-the-mouth strips of chicken, with the traditional accompaniment, peanut sauce. Pat makes hers from scratch. I have a via media — the coconut milk is bought and the fish sauce too, but then I tell myself that the best Thai homes must do that too. Then she brought in chup pang thort tempura, chopped “angel” mushrooms in batter, the fritters served with a hot and sweet carrot sauce, deep red to mirror the delicately carved tomato flower garnish. And there were prawn spring rolls or, as she said, kung hom pha — “prawns in blankets”. These were large prawns, bright pink tails aloft, with the heads tightly wrapped in casing and the whole bundle deep-fried to crisp gold. But the best arrived after: haw mok kai. Tiny parcels of rice and chicken with galangal, lemon grass and other aromatics, wrapped in banana leaf and steamed. These were soft and fragrant, the flavour delicate but distinctive.
These were just starters — dinner was to follow, after a respectable break. This column has less space than Pat’s table demands, so of the main course… another time.
PEANUT (SATAY) SAUCE
Makes about 2 cups
400 ml thick coconut milk
3 tbsp Demerara or palm sugar
2 tbsp Thai Red Curry Paste
225 gm roasted unsalted peanuts, ground coarsely
1 tbsp Thai fish sauce
Mix all the ingredients in a saucepan and simmer for 15 minutes, stirring all the while. Use immediately or refrigerate, warming again when needed.
THAI RED CURRY PASTE
Makes about 1/2 cup
6 dried red chillies, soaked in warm water
1 tsp cumin seeds
11/2 tsp coriander seeds
1/4 nutmeg, grated
2 tbsp finely sliced fresh lemon grass
2 red shallots or 1 small onion, chopped fine
1 tbsp finely chopped and roasted shallot
1 tbsp finely chopped garlic
Grated zest of 2 limes
1/4 tsp salt
1/2 tsp shrimp paste (optional)
Drain chillies after soaking for an hour; deseed. On a tawa/griddle, dry roast cumin, coriander seeds and nutmeg for a minute or so. Grind to a fine powder. Transfer to a larger food processor jar, add all the other ingredients and grind to a smooth paste, adding a few drops of water if necessary. Refrigerate in a tightly lidded jar until needed, for up to a week.